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Every land is the homeland of the strong

· The history of Olympia ·

A face with regular features and adolescent chubbiness, big velvety eyes and a gaze with a hint of melancholy, as if she were seeing the life that lay before her: in the extant portrait of Olympia she is wearing sumptuous clothes with the starched lace collar of the Spanish fashion of the time. To tone down the stiff preciosity of the whole, her hair is gathered softly in a delicate headdress consisting of small flowers dangling about her face, almost as if to caress it. It is Olympia in her first youth, the precocious and brilliant little girl who joined the cultured, elegant and opulent atmosphere of the d’Este family’s court.

Olympia, the daughter of Fulvio Pellegrino Morato and Lucrezia Gozi, was born in Ferrara in 1526. She received her first humanist education from her father, a refined man of letters and a Latin teacher. Through him, fascinated by the thinking of Erasmus and convinced of the need for a profound renewal of the Church, she embraced the doctrine of the Reformation. Olympia’s entrance into the court as study companion of Anna d’Este, the first child of Ercole ii, Duke of Ferrara and of Renée of France, afforded her an extraordinary opportunity: excellent teachers, a well-endowed library and contact with a large number of cultured people.

It was a happy time consisting of enthusiastic study and of many discoveries. Olympia, who soon moved with ease between Greek and Latin, began to compose poems, commentaries on classical authors, translations whose style still shows a certain scholastic woodenness but reveals culture, sensitivity and a surprising flare for analysis. Olympia discovered she had talent and did not regret it as happened at that time to so many women who, destined to “governance of the family” or to the convent, did not regard cleverness as a gift but as a condemnation. On the contrary, despite having been born a woman she claimed forcefully the freedom to live among “the flowered fields of the Muses”. The spindle, needle and loom, symbolic instruments of the hemmed-in life of women, held no attraction for her. For Olympia, who followed the infinite voices contained in books, their sound was merely “silence”.

First the atmosphere of her family and then that of the court fostered Olympia’s adherence to the Reformation. The Duchess Renée had in fact given life to a refined cenacle that welcomed reformed humanists and French exiles suspected of heresy: it was small court in the heart of the d’Este court which even offered hospitality to Calvin, who arrived in Ferrara in 1536 under a false name.

The turning-point came in 1548. Olympia left the court to nurse her dying father and was unable to return, distanced together with others from Ercole, who was bent on fighting the breath of heresy that threatened his splendid but fragile dukedom, a fiefdom of the State of the Church. Two years later she married Andreas Grunthler, a young German doctor who supported the Reformation, and to escape persecution the couple decided to leave for Germany. In Europe, ablaze with religious strife, Olympia made her life a testimony. She devoted herself to studying Scripture and meditated on topics such as freedom of conscience, the dignity of women and the power of faith that was capable of “overcoming the world”.

In the aching nostalgia of her emotions literature became correspondence. She wrote to her relatives, women friends, humanists and Protestant theologians in an intense and involving dialogue which celebrated together both human and divine love.

Convinced “that every land is the homeland of the strong” she courageously came to terms with the stages of their sad exile: Kaufbeuren, Würzburg and lastly Schweinfurth, where they lived through the long siege of the city and were saved thanks to an adventurous escape.

In rags and tatters and consumed by a burning fever, Olympia finally reached the erudite city of Heidelberg. They no longer possessed anything, even their books and manuscripts had been lost, but the couple was saved. A peaceful period seemed at last to be unfolding. Andreas obtained a chair of medicine at the university, Olympia taught Latin and Greek and rewrote what she remembered of her lost works.

In the meantime her illness was taking its toll. Her last letter was to the humanist Celio Secondo Curione, whom she loved as a second father, the teacher who believed in religious tolerance and in the value of knowledge in order to pass from “the shadow of things” to the “things” themselves. Olympia died of consumption on 26 October 1555. She was just 29 years old.

Francesca Romana de’ Angelis

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